Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 956
John Scotus Erigena’s Treatise on Divine Predestination is the product of religious controversies that raged during the Carolingian renaissance of the ninth century. He wrote it in response to a request by Hincmar, bishop of Rheims, for a refutation of the teachings of Gottshalk of Fulda. Gottschalk, a Saxon monk, stirred up controversy in the West Frankish kingdom of Charles the Bald by teaching that there were two divine predestinations, one toward virtue and salvation and one toward evil and damnation. Concerned that this misinterpretation of Saint Augustine appeared to condone wrongdoing as inevitable and to render attempts at reform futile, Charles summoned a synod of bishops to Quierzy in 849. The synod ordered Gottschalk imprisoned, but his doctrines continued to be propagated despite the efforts of Hincmar and Hrabanus Maurus, the kingdom’s foremost theologians.
Hincmar then appealed to John Scotus Erigena, an Irish scholar. Neither a monk nor a cleric, Erigena was better equipped than any contemporary to evaluate Saint Augustine as a philosopher. Now considered to be the only Western philosopher of any stature between Boethius in the sixth century and Saint Anselm in the eleventh, Erigena had already established a reputation for learning.
The Treatise on Divine Predestination went far beyond simple refutation of Gottshalk’s doctrines. In its nineteen chapters, Erigena addressed broader considerations of good, evil, and the nature of the afterlife. In his emphasis on free will and the essential goodness of human nature, his arguments approached the position of fellow Briton Pelagius, founder of the Pelagian heresy, which maintained that humans were capable of achieving salvation through free will alone, without the necessity of Christ’s sacrifice. The Treatise on Divine Predestination was condemned by French bishops at the Councils of Valence (855) and Langres (859). Detractors referred to it as pultes scotorum, or “Irish porridge.” It passed into obscurity, surviving to modern times in a single manuscript copy. Protected by the patronage of the Frankish king, Erigena continued to write, producing translations from the Greek that introduced Christian Neoplatonism to the Latin-speaking world and an original philosophical work, De divisione naturae (c. 862-866, also known as Periphysion; best known in partial translation as On the Division of Nature: Book 1, 1940; complete translation, Johannis Scotti Eriugenae Periphyseon [De divisione naturae], 1968-1981).
Erigena begins his treatise by stating that true philosophy is true religion and outlining the four-part model of philosophical disputation he intends to follow. This consists of division of the question into parts (divisoria), determining one from many (definitiva), indicating the hidden from the manifest (demonstrativa), and resolution (resolutia). In the first three chapters he presents a series of logical arguments against the doctrine of two predestinations. God, being the supreme cause of all things, is not subject to necessity, and therefore predestination to evil does not necessarily follow from predestination to good.
God is unity, Erigena argues. The ineffable cause of all things is indivisible into genera and species. The terms of theological discourse are merely verbal symbols imparting understanding to a person in his ascent toward God. “Predestination” is such a symbolic term, describing imperfectly one aspect of the Deity. A symbol divided into mutually exclusive parts cannot represent something indivisible; therefore, the doctrine of dual predestination is, in Erigena’s words, fabulous, like the legend of Icarus.
Therefore there can be only one divine predestination, one toward human happiness and salvation. The role of free will in the divine plan occupies much of the remainder of the book. Following Saint Augustine, Erigena sees free will as a gift from God, without which humanity would not bear the complete image of its creator. Free will would not be free without conferring the capacity to reject God. This rejection and the evil resulting from it were not created by God but are composed of individual voluntary acts of people. Evil is the absence of good. It has no substance; like darkness and silence, it is defined by what it is not. God did not create it, and God does not compel or predestine any person to commit evil acts.
Erigena distinguishes between foreknowledge and predestination. God has foreknowledge of many things of which he is not the cause. Christ’s selection of Judas as a disciple illustrates the distinction. Christ knew that Judas would betray him, but he did not cause that betrayal. Because God is eternal, past and future have no meaning for him; his foreknowledge is equivalent to memory and, like memory, does not imply causation.
Gottschalk cited numerous writings of Saint Augustine containing explicit references to God predestining sinners to punishment. According to Erigena, these are to be understood as arguments by contrariety, that is, stating the opposite of what is intended to point out its absurdity. The heretical potential of applying such a line of reasoning to sacred texts was not lost on contemporary or subsequent guardians of Church orthodoxy.
The book concludes with a philosophical treatment of the afterlife reminiscent of that of the heretical third century Greek writer Origen, who envisioned all of creation returning to God at the end of time. This scenario precludes the existence of a separate Hell reserved for the punishment of the wicked. Erigena offers several explanations for biblical references to the fires of judgment. He likens the Heavenly Kingdom to a sumptuous palace, and condemned sinners to visitors so ill that they experience nothing but misery despite their surroundings. The fiery torments of Hell may also be a metaphor for extreme psychological pain caused by separation from God. That interpretation, however, seems to be contradicted by a physical explanation of eternal flames through which all souls pass during the process of being reunited with God and in which unredeemable sinners become permanently lodged, as unchanged as asbestos.
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